|Mountain biking on the Tequila Trail near Oaxaca, Mexico - Trevor Clark|
Mountain Biking is Rare in Oaxaca - but not for long.
IT WAS EARLY. Hours from sunrise kind of early. My wimpy headlamp struggled to break through the predawn drizzle, and I could barely see my front tire or the trail ahead. Roots, rocks and stumps all seemed to be in cahoots, working together to upend me.
I tried to become one with the bike. I tried to feel out the trail with my other senses. I tried to anticipate obstacles, but I am no Zen master. My mountain biking skills are rough under the best conditions, and I was in the jungle in the dark.
|Riding out of the village of Benito Juárez - Trevor Clark|
My mate's more powerful headlamp suddenly provided a snapshot of a sharp turn and a wooden footbridge ahead. Then, lights out. I made an educated guess, went straight and took a hit that emptied my lungs: "Huhhhhh!" Cold water rushed into my clothes and pack as I lay in the stream, bike still on my feet, straight up in the air.
For a few moments, I laughed hysterically at my predicament and the fact that I was OK after missing the bridge. Then I picked myself up and kept moving.
We made it to the peak of Piedra Larga, a 10,761-foot-high lookout, for breakfast, corn-based hot chocolate and sunrise. As the sun slowly emerged from a thick layer of fog, we found ourselves hovering above a golden sea of clouds. The scenery was worth every blind pedal stroke.
|The view from a rock spire in the Sierra - Trevor Clark|
Seven of us had come to the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, Mexico, a forested mountain range in the northern part of the state. Oaxaca is known as the country's culinary and cultural center, and many visitors experience it through cooking classes and gallery walks in the capital city. We, instead, were mountain-biking part of an ancient Zapotec network of walking trails that have connected eight villages to each other and the rest of the world for eons.
Mountain biking is fairly new to Mexico and few people, even in the biking world, have explored its potential. But for the past 15 years, those eight villages have been working to create an environment where adventure tourism can thrive, sharing responsibility for and income from the efforts. Considering the fact that they had to breed their own mountain-bike guide, it is little surprise that things have taken a while to get off the ground.
“What followed was perhaps the best mountain biking I have ever done. There was no backing out, no second-guessing and no stopping.”
I was with a tour company looking into new mountain-biking trips. For five days, we wound our way through fields, along mountain ridges, up dirt roads and down steep, narrow corridors through thick forest. We dodged cows and plants with knuckle-piercing thorns, tipping our helmets with a big "Hola!" as we rolled through each village. The area offers more than 70 miles of one-lane trails (or singletrack, as it is known in mountain biking) stomped into perfect biking paths over countless years, and the opportunities seemed endless.
We arrived via van from the vibrant city of Oaxaca, riding along pothole-strewn arteries. We unloaded, a little carsick, in Benito Juárez, a pint-size village perched on the edge of the very steep road. The mountain air was crisp and refreshing, but the elevation made breathing laborious. A crowd of villagers quickly gathered around our wobbly group of Lycra-wearing gringos. We looked funny, but all that seemed to matter was that we were visitors, and were welcome.
|Summit of Piedra Larga 10,761 feet - Trevor Clark|
We rolled our bikes out of the trailer; in short order chains were lubed, adjustments were made and we were clicking in. We sped into the woods for a two-hour ride to the village of Llano Grande, where we would be based for the rest of our visit. We cruised through the mountainous jungle, smiling, laughing and pointing out trees and plants that could have inspired Dr. Seuss's books. We were so giggly that when we came across a carnivorous-looking cactus as big as our van, we all lost it and belly-laughed like little kids.
We rolled into Llano Grande as the sky turned dark, met up with our luggage-laden van and were shown to our accommodations. I was expecting a leaky hut, but a local ushered me into the warm, cedar-scented cabin and flipped on the light. There was a fire crackling in the fireplace; the water heater had already been primed.
Dinner was served in a small cinder-block building that doubled as the village store. Blue paint on the outside read, "Todo con medida." Roughly translated: "Everything in moderation." The cook's young children raced an old tricycle in and out of doorways and around our bags, occasionally hitting our outstretched feet. Food filled the table—and our stomachs. Beans, chicken, salsa, corn tortillas, Oaxacan cheese and fiery mezcal. Todo con medida, not so much.
Our guide was José Luis Marco, the 19-year-old grandson of the village elder, Adelfo, who has been heading up the tourism project since its inception. Even with an inferior bike and slick tires, José had no problem smoking us like we were on training wheels. Each day he led us through new sections of trail, stopping in different villages for lunch and sometimes a little sightseeing. Each night, we hung out in the only spot in town.
Late one afternoon, we were working our way up to a ridge that promised the best downhill stretch of singletrack of the trip, maybe in all of Mexico. It had been hyped for days: steep, daring and unpredictable.
It was raining. No surprise, as it rained every afternoon, but on this day the rain fell without pause. As my legs pushed and my lungs strained for a decent breath, all I could think about was the hazardous Mexican practice of using tortillas as utensils. A post-lunch siesta would have been more appropriate for my starch-filled belly than a steep, soggy bike ride.
Stroke after gut-wrenching stroke, we reached the height of the climb. Relief, excitement and nervous anticipation emerged as we looked around into the eerie abyss of fog and leafless trees below. Though we couldn't quite see it, we knew from the angle on each side of our bikes that the ground dropped off into nothingness. Before us a faint trail led into the same nothingness.
The phrase pierced the silence in a serious, matter-of-fact monotone. The riders ahead of me disappeared one by one into the fog.
Minutes ticked on like hours as I waited in the lonely white silence for a sign that we weren't going off a cliff. Then: "Aaaahhahahahaha, yeah!!!!"
The path ahead was steep, but it led somewhere—and that somewhere sounded fun.
What followed was perhaps the best mountain biking I have ever done. The only word for it is "committed." There was no backing out, no second-guessing and no stopping. Millimeters from losing my manhood to the teeth of my back tire while dodging low branches and threading through suspended fallen trees, I was on a magical tear down the mountain.
|Cycling through a village - Trevor Clark|
I had finally found The Force, that place where practice, physical conditioning, environmental awareness and mental stamina come together. It is a place where things just happen. You become the action, moving without thought or hesitation. For a grand instant, I was in sync with the environment I was passing through and it was in sync with me.
As we descended further into the fog and rainy saturation of lower elevation, the trail turned into really wet clay. It felt like a layer of Jell-O. Semi-controlled sliding became the name of the game, but nobody was backing off.
Our hard concentration turned into wide eyes and whooping grins. We wobbled around corners on the precipice of disaster. Giddy laughter turned into competitive jabs and before long, we were all flying like rag dolls into the woods. Lying in the mud having gone from out-of-control biking to uncontrollable laughter was the highlight of the entire trip.